Ask Steph: Why is 90% Attendance Significant?

By Stephanie Fakharzadeh, Applied Data Strategist

Stephanie “Steph” Fakharzadeh is an Applied Data Strategist at RISE working with Career High School in New Haven and Naugatuck High School. She holds a PhD in Education from Johns Hopkins University and is leading RISE’s research efforts.

Dear Steph: I am on my school’s attendance team and we regularly use the “Student Attendance Groups” dashboard. One thing I don’t understand is why is 90% attendance significant?

Great question! While the short answer is that the Connecticut State Department of Education (CSDE) defines chronic absenteeism as a student missing 10% or more of their enrollment days in a given school year, there is an interesting history behind both this definition of chronic absenteeism and the reasons for monitoring it.  

There is a strong body of research that supports the idea that reducing missed instructional time is important for student achievement, and it is particularly important for preventing students from dropping out. Neild & Balfanz found that 8th grade students with 80% or lower attendance (for any reason) had a 78% chance of dropping out of high school. Similarly, research from Utah indicated that students who were chronically absent during 8th grade or any year of high school were 1.7 times as likely to be reading below grade level and 7.4 times as likely to drop out. These findings inspired researchers to begin asserting that simply monitoring school-wide average daily attendance was insufficient for understanding individual students’ attendance behaviors, and monitoring chronic absenteeism would be more impactful for improving school outcomes. As a 2012 report from the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University pointed out, “A school can have average daily attendance of 90% and still have 40% of its students chronically absent, because on different days, different students make up that 90%.” Taking this advice of the research community into consideration, 36 states chose to include chronic absenteeism as the non-academic “School Quality or Student Success” (SQSS) indicator required by 2015’s Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to help improve school climate. The vast majority of those states chose to use 90% as the threshold for chronic absenteeism.

Data trends within the RISE Network support the research that shows a strong relationship between attendance and academic outcomes. During the 2018-19 school year, 82.4% of students who were off-track at the end of Grade 9 were chronically absent, compared to only 12.5% of students who were on-track at the end of Grade 9 (see graph below). RISE encourages the use of dashboards like “Student Attendance Groups” and “Chronic Absenteeism Rates” to help attendance teams (like yours) monitor not only average daily attendance but chronic absenteeism as well. Considering both measures will help you and your team have a better sense of how many students are habitually absent, making it easier to develop individualized interventions that address the root causes of students’ low attendance. We recognize that challenges such as chronic illness, family obligations, and burdens of poverty all contribute to chronic absenteeism, and that reducing it must therefore be a highly individualized process. We hope that adopting this holistic approach to attendance can inform comprehensive interventions, incentives, and policies that take into account these situational contexts.